Circular economy approaches advanced in 2019, particularly for plastics and packaging. Companies are responding with new strategies to reduce waste. Businesses are seeking to close the packaging loop with new product delivery models that actually existed a long time ago but now have a modern twist. In other cases, its new, breakthrough technologies for chemical recycling of plastic materials that companies are increasingly getting behind.
Momentum is building, although we’ve still got a long way to go in creating a fully circular economy. Looking to 2020 and beyond, here are six emerging trends to keep an eye on:
1. Policymakers Seek to Hold Producers Responsible for Waste
The policy landscape focused on end-of-life needs for products picked up in 2019. Although many bills are still in play in the United States, look to 2020 and beyond to see them go into effect.”It’s a function of the turmoil in the industry and all the plastics challenges,” said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industrial collaboration at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that launched the Circular Economy Accelerator this year to advocate policy solutions.
Companies are also more willing to collaborate on policy now, de Thomas said: “The question is: Is legislation going to be done to them or with them?” Extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills that require manufacturers and retailers to contribute to the cost of collecting, recycling and disposing of their products at the end of life or use are making headway in states such as California and Maine. The National Stewardship Action Council, in fact, lists nine states with EPR legislation on specific products such as carpets, drugs and sharps, or on packaging. A federal bill covering EPR legislation was even drafted, aimed at reducing plastic waste.
California’s bills are especially robust and would create a comprehensive regulatory scheme for producers, retailers and wholesalers of single-use packaging and priority single-use products, requiring a 75 percent reduction of such waste statewide by 2030.
Europe and Canada already have EPR systems in place for packaging and goods such as electronics, batteries and cars, but Europe is moving towards “eco-modulation” that ties manufacturer costs for EPR programs to the recyclability or amount of recycled content in packaging.
2. Companies Collaborate to Reuse Materials and Packaging
The groundbreaking Next Gen Consortium — which seeks to create fully recoverable takeout cups — exemplifies how companies are increasingly partnering with supply chain members to solve materials challenges. We should see more such partnerships in 2020 and beyond.
“Businesses are testing things they wouldn’t have been open to a few years ago,” Croke said. “We’re seeing folks putting bets in multiple areas. Not just trying to solve the recycling side but also looking at new ways to deliver products that might not include packaging at all.”
“Producers are being stronger partners in the system,” agreed de Thomas, who says it’s one thing that excites him most about the future. Companies are better understanding what it means to use recycled content in packaging and ensuring that the packaging they’re making can be recycled, he said.
“Five years ago, it was a challenge to get brands to use the Association of Plastic Recyclers. Design Guide for Recyclability, but now that they’re needing the material from the recycling system, they’re paying more attention to how they put their product out in the marketplace,” he said. “Companies are producing better packaging.”
3. Consumer Brands Explore Refill Models
With recycled plastic material meeting only 6 percent of demand today, companies with aggressive commitments to using recycled content in their packaging seek alternative solutions. Increasingly, some companies are testing new refill models that solve for waste and consumer convenience, while ensuring the integrity of the product inside.
Dozens of brands, from Tide to Pantene to Colgate, are partnering with Loop, a global, online shopping platform that uses a closed-loop system for product delivery. Loop, which will ramp beyond its initial markets during 2020, provides products to consumers in durable containers that can be reused multiple times and is driving companies to invest in such high-value packaging.
Unilever is testing several refill models, including Algramo, the Chilean startup that refills product by the gram from vending machines. To incentivize reuse, Algramo’s packaging is equipped with radio frequency identity (RFID) chips that track customer use and earn them credit every time they refill the container.
Meanwhile, in the glass market, Conscious Container had developed a refill marketplace for the craft brewing industry. Thus far it’s operating in Nevada and northern California. Reusing, rather than recycling, glass bottles use less energy and improve the economics for materials recovery facilities by reducing the amount of broken glass in the system. The refill trend is just beginning; expect more innovation in this space in 2020.